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Guilty by Association

by Thomas a Thornhill Jr

It was a problem Jesus continually faced throughout His earthly ministry.  It was a problem provoked by His enemies who were looking for anything for which they could accuse Him.  It was a problem that affected those who wanted to believe Him and follow Him.  It was a problem that years later would result in Christians being persecuted.  The problem was guilt by association.

Matthew 9:9-12 records the choosing of Matthew as one of the 12 apostles of Jesus.  In that text we read, “As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him.  Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, ‘Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”   Later on in His ministry, Luke 15:2 records, “And the Pharisees and scribes complained saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”   In Luke 19 we read of another occasion with another tax collector named Zacchaeus.  As Jesus was passing through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem there were crowds desiring to see Him.  Zacchaeus, being short in stature, climbed into a tree to see Him.  As Jesus passed by He looked up and saw him and said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”  Vs. 7 of the text says, “But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, ‘He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.’”

What was the problem with their accusations on these occasions?  It was the fact that they made many false assumptions.  First, they assumed that all tax collectors and those who associated with them were “sinners.”  Second, they assumed that such people were hopeless and thus to be avoided at all costs.  Third, they assumed that just because Jesus talked and dined with them that He approved of everything they did including their sinful behaviors.  Fourth, they assumed that His motives were not and could not be noble.  In all of these examples the problem was an attitude of guilt by association.

Guilt by association means that one passes judgment on another based upon outward appearance or without all the facts, due to one’s association with someone about whom the one passing judgment has formed an unfavorable opinion.  That is exactly what the enemies of Jesus did as mentioned above.  But guilt by association can also have reference to one’s attempt to discredit ideas because of who is supporting that idea.  Again, the example of Jesus comes to mind.  Because Jesus associated with “sinners and tax collectors” whom they had judged as unworthy, then His ideas were equally corrupt (of course they were ideas that they didn’t like or want to accept in the first place).

Guilt by association still happens today.  It is seen in the act of prejudice in its various forms.  When we assume that everyone of a particular race is a certain way (and it is usually negative) we are guilty of this concept.  When one turns against another or makes broad accusations against them simply because of someone that they were associating with before they get all the facts, they could be guilty of guilt by association.  It is a product of ungodliness and dishonesty.   And while we might expect those of the world to act that way from time to time, do we ever find ourselves as Christians being guilty of this same attitude? 

Consider this: Do we base our acceptance or rejection of some teaching upon who we hear saying it or who the author of a particular book is?  In other words, are there some people whose words we always accept and others whom we always reject simply because of who they are?   For example: Have you ever read anything that a Baptist said that is the truth?  I have.  In fact much of what they teach is the truth and we can learn from it.  But that does not mean that if I quote a particular statement from a Baptist author, and give him credit, that I support all Baptist doctrine or everything that he is writing.  But there are some who would say that to quote a Baptist (in a positive light) is to approve of all that they teach.  In other words, you are guilty by association.  But in reality, the only reason one might quote that author on that particular subject is because he sees it as truth expressed in an excellent fashion.  His agreement with that author is only limited to the quote.  Furthermore, his convictions are probably based upon much more than just that quote.  I would hope that an appeal to what the Bible actually says about the subject was the first and primary source considered in formulating his convictions.  To assume anything more than that is to be guilty of pronouncing one guilty by association

Why is guilt by association wrong?

1.  It is a product of prejudice.  Prejudice means that one prejudges another without knowing all the facts or based upon outward appearance alone.  Prejudice is a sin.  In James 2:1-4 says, “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, "You sit here in a good place," and say to the poor man, "You stand there," or, "Sit here at my footstool," have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” This is one of many passages that condemns the sin of prejudice.  Note how one pronounces one as worthy or unworthy based upon appearance alone and without all the facts. 

2.  It is judging with evil motives.  Let it be understood that a part of being godly is making judgments.  In spite of what many say about not being judges, if we are to obey God we have to pass judgments.  Even in Matthew 7:1-5 where Jesus said, “Judge not that you be not judged” (vs. 1) He clarified by noting that there IS a time to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.  This requires judgment.  Furthermore, in vs. 6 He said that we are not to cast our pearls (i.e. the truth) before swine which also calls for us to make a judgment.  In John 7:24 Jesus said very clearly, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”  Note how He says there is a time AND a need for judgment, BUT it must be righteous and “not according to appearance” which is what guilty by association involves.  In almost every situation where one pronounces guilt by association on another, they have assumed the worst in a given situation and they have done so without all the facts.   And that is judging with evil thoughts.  Often times, their judgment is also based upon someone or something they didn’t like in the first place.  Just like the scribes and Pharisees judged Jesus, whom they did not like, and His associating with sinners, whom they had prejudged.

3.  It often divides where division is not needed.  Sadly, I understand that there comes a time when division is necessary.  Because not all are willing to abide by the truth we have to draw lines for the sake of purity (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6, 2 John 9-11).  In addition to this, we must understand that we need to be careful whom we associate with (1 Corinthians 15:33, Proverbs 13:20).  But sometimes guilt by association divides people, even brethren, unnecessarily.  The one who has made the judgment demands that everyone agree with him about those whom he has judged to be false.  If you don’t agree with the one making the demands then you are assumed to be in agreement with his enemy and therefore you are just as guilty.

                For these reasons and perhaps others, guilt by association is something we ought to strive to avoid as Christians.  What about you?  Do you ever find yourself making judgments against others simply because of whom you see them with or perhaps who they are related to?  Do you jump to conclusions without gathering all the facts about someone else.   If so, be warned that it was that attitude that caused the enemies of Jesus to crucify Him.  And I know you wouldn’t want someone to accuse you of that.  Think about it!